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Quake-shaken pandas bring joy to Beijing

Eight newcomers from Sichuan province go on display, doubling as crowd-pleasers and fundraisers.

June 19, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The most famous refugees from last month's earthquake in Sichuan province lounge on their backs chewing long stalks of bamboo.

Like bored celebrities, they shrug off the camera flashes on the other side of glass and the endless repetition of "Na'me ke'ai!" -- so cute!

The eight young pandas at the Beijing Zoo were evacuated from the Wolong Nature Reserve, the world's largest panda breeding center, after the May 12 earthquake that killed 70,000 people and left about 5 million homeless.

The Wolong center sustained serious damage, with 14 of 32 panda houses destroyed, and the reserve may not be able to open for a year or longer because the access roads were largely washed out.

An estimated 1,400 pandas, about 80% of those surviving in the wild, live in the earthquake-affected areas where landslides, soil erosion and flooding may have reduced their main food source, bamboo, Chinese forestry officials say.

The eight pandas already had been selected to come to Beijing as part of a special zoo exhibit for the Summer Olympics, but their arrival was hastened by the extensive damage to the nature reserve. Now, instead of merely looking cute and advertising the Olympic Games, which will begin Aug. 8, they are being used for fundraising.

Collection boxes are scattered throughout their exhibit space at the zoo soliciting donations for the rebuilding of the Wolong reserve as well as for various charities aiding the earthquake's human victims. Money also is being raised through sales of panda paraphernalia -- key chains, hats, umbrellas, T-shirts, mugs, stickers, etc. Many are now emblazoned with the number 512, which to the people of China has the resonance of 9/11.

"They are not just the Olympic pandas now. They are refugees from the disaster area," said Yang Baijin, director-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Assn., one of the organizers of the exhibit. "We want to use them to help people reflect on what happened and the impact on the environment."

Pandas and pathos seemed to make for an irresistible combination. More than 50,000 people visited the exhibit June 5, its opening day, and crowds of 100,000 are expected on weekend days. On one recent weekday morning, visitors were three-deep at a large glass-fronted atrium watching the pandas eat a breakfast of leafy bamboo, which they munched while lying on their backs, feet in the air.

"We came early to avoid the crowds, but no," said Bethany Johnson, a 28-year-old architect from Chicago. "We wanted to make the trip out to Sichuan to see them, but after the earthquake this is the next best thing."

Most of the visitors were Chinese, who are every bit as crazy about the pandas as foreigners.

"They are just so cute," said Lu Yuyang, a 24-year-old artist who was sketching the animals in a notebook.

The displaced pandas, each 2 years old, are surrounded by grass, trees and waterfalls evocative of their natural habitat in Sichuan province. Their accommodations were hastily built over the last month and are separate from the housing for the zoo's permanent panda population.

Four panda keepers were sent from Wolong to cater to the pandas' physical and psychological needs.

Heng Yi, a researcher from the reserve, said it is important to keep them quarantined because of their susceptibility to disease during the transition period.

"They are suffering a lot of psychological stress. They had a big shock with the earthquake," said Heng.

Heng was at the reserve when the magnitude 7.9 quake struck, its epicenter just 18 miles away in Wenchuan.

He said he was chatting with two colleagues when he felt a sensation like a cellphone vibrating in his pocket. As the stronger shaking began, he and the others rushed outside and watched as the mountains appeared to be collapsing, the sky growing dark with dirt, boulders rolling toward them.

Once it stopped and they realized the staff at the headquarters was safe, the workers split into two groups -- one to search for a group of 30 British tourists and another to check on the pandas.

"In our hearts, we felt the pandas' lives were more important than our own," Heng said.

One panda was killed in the earthquake and another disappeared. The survivors emerged greatly traumatized.

"They went up the trees and wouldn't come down," Heng said. "Our people have been trying to communicate by talking to them, touching them. We are trying to lessen their stress."

--

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Eliot Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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